It's been all over the news. Another airline debacle left passengers stranded on a tarmac, involuntarily bumped, with airline-controllable missed connections and no passenger compensation. It once again set angry passengers and consumer advocates to calling for an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights, perhaps modeled after the European Union model.
Events of the last two years involving the cruise industry and angry cruisers have similarly raised the issue of the need for a Cruise Line Passenger Bill of Rights, which CLIA announced in May.
But what about us? What about the rights of travel agents?
On our Facebook group, "Travel Agency Best Practices," a common theme in recent threads has been occurrences that have created stress and sometimes an occasional vent or three. The sentiment of a number of the subscribers reminds me of the manifesto from the movie "Network": "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore."
So, in the interest of our emotional health, if nothing else, maybe it really is time for a Travel Agent Bill of Rights.
After all, we can't expect others to take up our cause. Trade groups have no power to compel suppliers to take commercial action on our behalf, although they, along with suppliers, are often our advocates on other fronts -- witness the immediate response by executives of Vacation.com, Travel Leaders Group, Nexion, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., Celebrity, Azamara, Norwegian Cruise Line, CLIA and ASTA taking Woman's Day to task for a factually erroneous online article that portrayed us poorly.
ASTA has shown resurgence in advocacy as well by working to defeat severely punitive tax legislation in several states that would have taxed travel agency gross receipts, all but guaranteeing the demise of much of the trade.
While these actions by ASTA, various consortia, agent-friendly suppliers and CLIA are welcome support, in the end, we're on our own. It is we who have to assert certain inalienable rights: • We have the right to operate our business in a manner that is best for us.
We can take into consideration input from suppliers and use it to our benefit, but they need to remember that adoption of their suggestions isn't mandatory. At the end of the day, we are the sole arbiter of what is right or wrong for our clients and our business, and we will act accordingly. • We have the right to choose suppliers.
If a supplier cuts commissions, stops supporting our agency's marketing efforts or takes other actions that make it harder for us to make money, it is not good use of our time or energy simply to complain about those changes yet continue to promote and sell the supplier.
At Just Cruisin' Plus, we calculate the total cost to handle a booking and compare it with the average commission generated on bookings for a given supplier. If we're losing money, we put greater emphasis on our consortium's preferred suppliers and upselling to higher categories. That has been particularly true for preferred-supplier land packages and river cruises that often generate commissions higher than the value of the reservation for nonpreferred suppliers that we have hung onto over the years.
In some cases, changing focus away from nonpreferred suppliers has made the difference. • We have the right to choose our clients.
It took a while for me to figure out that the client who started off a call with "I want the cheapest thing you can find" or "I found this price at XYZ. What can you do for me?" rarely turned out to be a good client. In fact, I couldn't recall a single one who had.
Other agencies have had different experiences, and you might have been regaled with stories of the "big one," where some agency took a dive on a cheapo three-night cruise and the next booking for those same clients was a $65,000, 31-night luxury cruise. I guarantee they are extremely rare. In my case, I have found it's usually better to hand them off to another agency. • We have a right to choose the business model that fits us.
The reason Baskin-Robbins has 31 flavors is because vanilla just isn't enough. There might not be 31 different travel agency business models, but there certainly are more than a few. Find the flavor that best suits you.
Our model emphasizes service, putting together a lot of moving parts and creating a vacation that makes memories that last a lifetime. For years, we tried to compete with rebaters. Then I came to realize that it wasn't our model that couldn't compete with their model. It was their model that couldn't compete with the quality customer service we insist on providing. Their margins were too thin.
So, I didn't need to copy their model or their pricing. I needed to find our strengths and exploit them. And it has worked. We increasingly see clients who understand that the cheapest price isn't necessarily the best value as it relates to service. • We have the right to evolve.
My background is in chemical engineering and business management. Writing five-year plans was as natural as breathing for me. We started off with five-year marketing plans that were solid for years one, two and three but got fuzzy on reaching our goals in years four and five.
Today, we write three-year plans. Even so, these days, year two is fuzzy, and year three is a crapshoot in some ways because we control nothing external to our agency. We are at the mercy of the economy, the weather and more.
Your model has to be a work in progress that adapts quickly to external changes. If you're trying to do business the same way today that you did it even five years ago, you'll likely find yourself in an evolutionary cul-de-sac.
As the saying goes, "If you always do what you've always done, you always get what you always got." Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, put it another way: "What's dangerous is not to evolve."
I'll leave you with this thought: I don't know about you, but most of my exchanges with store cashiers are not that meaningful. The advantage to being a customer-focused enterprise is that you can afford to be pioneering in the pursuit of meaningful client relationships, regardless of what your competition is doing. You can afford to be much more than a cashier. Charlie and Sherrie Funk own Just Cruisin' Plus in Brentwood, Tenn., and are members of the CLIA Hall of Fame.